When We Cease to Understand the World
(NYRB, 2021, 192 pp. $18.95)
On December 24th, 1915, Einstein receives a letter from the young astronomer Karl Schwarzschild, then stationed on the Russian front. The letter includes “the first exact solutions to the equations of general relativity,” which had appeared just a month earlier in the November issue of Annalen der Physik. A consequence of Schwarzschild’s elegant solution is an anomaly, a terrible contraction of space-time that became known as the Schwarzschild singularity: what we now call a black hole. In 1918, on leave from his military service in World War I, Ludwig Wittgenstein completed his Tractatus Logistico-Philosophicus. Published in English in 1922, his first principle, “The world is all that is the case,” sounds as if he foresees what the quantum physicists will, in the next few years, begin to prove. In the fall of 1919 Fritz Haber learns he has won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work, in 1907, on the extraction of nitrogen from the atmosphere. Nearly half the world’s population depends on the industrialization of Haber’s pioneering research; without it they would starve. The so-called Haber-Bosch process, which allows for the mass production of fertilizer, is also essential for the mass production of explosives. During the war Haber perfected the use of Chlorine gas, which was first deployed on April 22, 1915, at Ypres, in Belgium. The French and British suffered 67,000 casualties. Nothing survived: “All of the animals had come out of their holes to die. Dead rabbits, moles, rats and mice were everywhere. […] The horses, still in the stables, cows, chickens, everything, all were dead. Everything, even the insects were dead.”
That Haber received, after the war his work did so much to prolong, and to which he made such a gruesome contribution, a prize funded by Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, is a kind of justice I hesitate to call poetic. Labatut’s rapid, gripping series of capsule biographies of varying lengths, picking and choosing among scientists and mathematicians, does not go in sequence. But the majority of the book examines lives and careers from roughly 1919 to 1939, the entre deux guerres period about which so much has been written. (Except for the mention of Wittgenstein, the ‘history’ I recount in my first paragraph is drawn straight from the book.) The book has a thoroughly modern sensibility in that it does more than a little ‘antiquing.’ It is post-modern in the sense that it has no fixed setting and there is little character “development.” As if the whole twentieth century were a haunted house, When We Cease to Understand the World opens with an account of Göring’s addiction to dihydrocodeine, citing William Burroughs—some authority—on the effects of the drug that fueled the Blitzkrieg, and never stops. His subjects—so many are real people I am reluctant to call them characters—suffer excruciating ailments, debilitating addictions, paranoid delusions, apocalyptic visions. Some are hapless, almost pathetic; many lurch between sanity and madness; all are possessed by daimons.
The longest, central section, not quite one hundred pages of the one-hundred-and-eighty-nine-page total, from which the book derives its English title, begins with Werner Heisenberg’s retreat, in 1925, to Helgoland, an island in the North Sea. He traveled there to escape his terrible allergies and tackle the problem posed by Niels Bohr’s mathematical account of atomic structure. The plot of this section, if it could be said to have one, is to dramatize the working lives of the founders of the quantum revolution. Labatut focuses on the eccentrics, those with sensational biographies. Chapter two takes up the life of the “Prince Louis-Victor Raymond, 7th duc de Broglie,” a spoilt aristocrat who becomes a serious eccentric and a more serious scientist, seemingly overnight. To the revolution he makes a Nobel-prize winning contribution with his dissertation, Research on the Theory of the Quanta. Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger, is the subject of chapter 3. In Labatut’s telling, Schrödinger, washed up, suffering from TB and confined to a sanatorium, conceives a dangerous passion for the daughter of the doctor who runs the clinic. This wise child is straight out of central typecasting. So too is Schrödinger’s obsession with her, which seems entirely unrelated to his work. It is never easy to make the tedious work of science dramatic.
Labatut is interested in the best and the brightest, those whose contributions were figuratively and literally earth-shattering. Hyperbole is the order of the day: In July 1926, at Munich, Schrödinger presents “one of the strangest and most powerful equations that the human mind has ever created.” He did receive the Nobel Prize for his work, but the central question is whether the creations of the human mind are, to be colloquial, all they’re cracked up to be. Coincidentally, a book appeared earlier this year that offers a more robust if still incomplete account of the discoveries and implications of quantum physics: Carlo Rovelli’s Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution. It too begins, as the title suggests, with Heisenberg’s stay on Helgoland (Heligoland in English). According to Rovelli, the work Heisenberg did there was the first step in the quantum revolution.
The Sacred Island was profaned, and the summaries Rovelli and Labatut offer of the island’s fate illustrate differences between Labutut’s “work of fiction based on real events” and Rovelli’s non-fiction. What little vegetation, what life of any kind, was obliterated when, on April 18, 1947, the British detonated a cache of explosives the retreating Germans left behind. “It is probably,” Rovelli qualifies, in an uncharacteristically awkward clause, “the biggest explosion ever made using conventional explosives.” Labatut claims the British blew up their own cache of weapons, in “the most powerful non-nuclear explosion in history[.]” Labatut’s version of history is alternative and authoritative—or just plain inaccurate; he is consistently inconsistent about his respect for facts.
Even without finding one’s suspicions confirmed in the Acknowledgements, readers of W.G. Sebald will detect his influence. The original title, Un Verdor Terrible (A Terrible Greenness, A Terrible Verdure) sounds even more Sebaldian than the title selected for this English-language edition, which was shortlisted for the International Booker prize (reserved for books in translation). Labatut’s method has much in common with Sebald’s. Sebald visited archives, occasionally going so far as to invent archival materials, and often wrote about real people. Wisely, Labatut does not include illustrations. Among other effects, Sebald’s use of photographs, prints, postcards, doodles, gently mock the tradition of illustration as a form of information easier to believe than words, and his innovation can only be imitated, or parodied. If Sebald’s pictures are worth a thousand words, those words are not necessarily germane to his text. Like found objects, stubborn concretions in his sedimentary prose, they have their own half-life, decay at their own rate, obsolescing faster than the prose. To those who can’t abide him, Sebald’s prose is a soporific, his images precious. To those of us who admire him, his books’ effect is far greater than a sum of parts. After reading Sebald one doesn’t just have the memory of reading something extraordinary but a sense that memory isn’t the sense one thought it was. So too with Labatut. The tone of When We Cease to Understand the World is its most remarkable achievement.
Despite the stock neo-Gothic elements—children rendered prodigious by long illness, mysterious strangers who sound like prophets, an inn-keeper with a heart of gold— Labatut’s book is yet another nonfiction novel, a category Sebald’s books fit into uneasily—the more one knows about his method and his subjects, the more uneasily they fit. The “non-fiction novel” is at least as old as Defoe; and like everything old it is new again—and again. In her 1969 “Reflections on Fiction,” Elizabeth Hardwick observed: “‘Non-fiction novels’ and ‘fictionalized fact’ are phrases of the moment, perhaps not always significant, but interesting in a critical sense.” Unpersuaded by their novelty, Hardwick means that novels advertising their loyalty to facts are no better or worse than novels that don’t make such appeals. The form is capacious, and flexible, but “[These phrases of the moment] would seem to indicate a high degree of impatience with the very roots of the novel form, to question the value of the designation itself.”
The impatience with fiction Hardwick laments has only increased. We have become so attached to our beliefs we are reluctant to suspend our disbelief. A “post-truth” world seems to invite virtuous appeals to “true” stories; and yet the persuasive power of appealing to the truth is vestigial, and the “truth” elusive. In a talk from 2010, not collected in book form until 2018 when it became the title essay of his collection The Origins of Dislike, Amit Chaudhuri has more trenchant things to say of novels that might be inoculated by research against failures essential to their nature.
With the conflation, in some circles, of the Indian novel in English with a particular sort of historical novel, it isn’t unusual to encounter Indian readers who praise such-and-such a novelist because they “do a lot of research.” The remark expresses a familiar sense of relief, as well as the triumphal faith our educated Anglophone classes have in the rationally verifiable. Research authenticates the novel’s putative ambition of representing reality—of embodying the evolution from archival forays to fictionalization which sometimes becomes indistinguishable from reconstruction. Indians who clearly haven’t read my work sometimes ask me (as I’m a novelist): “You must do a lot of research.” I’ve pondered this query, and what I’ve begun to say to them is this: that I “do research” all the time, but not for specific books or projects. That is, the imagination—at least my imagination—doesn’t seem to follow the model of scientific work, from premise to fieldwork to hypothesis to published findings.
I quote Chaudhuri at length not only because I admire him but also because what he identifies as a habit of “our educated Anglophone classes” is, I think, common worldwide among the twittering classes. It has become a point of honor, a bizarre form of due diligence: one must examine (“research”) an author’s background and identity before their work might be deemed worthy of attention. Found worthy, research reinforces one’s decision to proceed to reading: research is proof of ‘real’ work, making a novel easier to trust, since the “true” need not—even cannot—be judged as the imagined can—and should—be. This is the other “critical” sense Hardwick refers to: the sense of judgment. These days, in certain circles, to say one relies on one’s “judgment” is to admit to cultivating a kind of prejudice.
In answer to those who believe he must do research Chaudhuri makes a claim for the authority of what Christopher Ricks has called the “responsible liberty of imagination.” In his “Literature and the Matter of Fact,” Ricks considers this question, and gives me some of my terms, and so much of my hope. Here Ricks pivots from his opening example—whether George Eliot was wrong about the color of the draperies hung around St. Peter’s at Christmas—to the crux: “Does it matter if George Eliot got it wrong? The answer that you give will prove central to what you imagine imagination to be, and to judging what, in works of art, distinguishes from license the responsible liberty of imagination.”
I can’t say what, if anything, Labatut gets wrong. Yet writing a novel “based on real events” invites readers to reduce a book to its facts, and to query them. A few minutes on Wikipedia suggests that he simplified for the sake of the story. No harm there. But what he chose to simplify is what the novel, as a form, seems best prepared to preserve in all its maddening complexity: human motive. Fritz Haber’s wife committed suicide: “When Haber returned victorious from the massacre at Ypres, Clara accused him of perverting science by devising a method for exterminating human beings on an industrial scale.” Condemning his actions becomes her motive, a plausible, powerful reason to despise him. I’m prepared to believe she would find it impossible to live with herself if she loved him but couldn’t leave him, yet couldn’t imagine living without him. But she does not condemn what he has become: she attacks, according to Labatut, Haber for “perverting science.” This sounds curiously impersonal, too reasonable, too much more like the book’s thesis, as if Clara is just another life sacrificed for the failure of science to live up to ideals it never had. Labatut reserves judgment, but his characters do occasionally judge themselves. Offering that observation, I have my own reservations: as most of his characters aren’t inventions but real people the book straddles the line between the pleasures of fiction and the demands of history.
Does it matter if any of this is true? And does the question of whether any of it is true help us decide whether Labatut takes liberties? This is a separate question from whether he’s entitled to take them. Ignore for a moment the credulous reader who believes what she reads, concludes that genius is a disease from which some sufferers never recover, and that the epithet reserved for these famous men—the book is almost all men—is synonymous with obnoxious. Ignore what the authors of the biographies Labatut acknowledges as source material might say about what he has made of their painstaking research. Ignore who he leaves out, notably Max Born. According to Rovelli, Born “is the least flamboyant and the least well known of the creators of quantum mechanics, but he is perhaps the real architect of the theory[.]” Consistent with his remark about the fate of the Sacred Island, Rovelli qualifies, includes another “perhaps” in his assessment of Born’s importance. Labatut’s fictional nonfiction, by contrast, does without qualification. And what Labatut offers in his Acknowledgements doesn’t clarify so much as sound like an apology of the sort one makes after having failed to heed the advice, Better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission: “The quantity of fiction grows throughout the book; whereas ‘Prussian Blue’ [the first section] contains only one fictional paragraph, I have taken greater liberties in the subsequent texts, while still trying to remain faithful to the scientific concepts discussed in each of them.” Wonderfully evasive this, a welcome dodge of the epistemological conundrums of fiction.
Since that “one fictional paragraph” doesn’t announce itself, the whole section becomes suspect, which is to say fictional. Real or not, remarkable figures loom in the candle- and gaslit sections of “Prussian Blue”: Johann Jacob Diesbach, the discoverer of this, the first artificial pigment; “the ornithologist, linguist and entomologist Johann Leonhard Frisch, who turned his blue into gold”; Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who, along with discovering cyanine, is “the chemist with the most discoveries of natural elements to his name (seven, including oxygen, which he called ‘fire air’)[.]” The history of pigments is bound up with the history of pesticides, the history of pest control with the extermination of ‘undesirables’; the history of theoretical physics might be, to borrow a suggestive title of Sebald’s, the natural history of destruction. Labatut leaves the question open. That we will have our answer in this century seems inarguable. Haber must be the most influential scientist most of us have never heard of. He embodies these contradictions completely, saving millions of lives from starvation, and taking thousands of lives in gas attacks. If Labatut is to be believed, it’s hard to worry about eating processed foods when, thanks to Haber, our modern bodies are the byproducts of the Haber-Bosch process: “Today, nearly fifty per cent of the nitrogen atoms in our bodies are artificially created[.]” Hard to argue with the mathematician Grothendieck’s assertion that “‘The atoms that tore Hiroshima and Nagasaki apart were split not by the greasy fingers of a general, but by a group of physicists armed with a fistful of equations.’”
Alexander Grothendieck is one of the most enigmatic figures in Labatut’s book: a renowned mathematician, a radical pacifist who had a sort of conversion experience, he lived the last third of his life like Simone Weil might have had she survived her own austerities. (He is not the writer she is.) Grothendieck’s indictment appears in quotation marks, suggesting that at some point the real Grothendieck made this claim. I quote from Labatut’s “quote” of Willi Seibert, the witness to the slaughter at Ypres, in my first paragraph. In the same paragraph that describes Clara’s suicide, Labatut appears to quote Haber, possibly from a letter or a memoir. Distinct from the convention in novels to set off characters’ speech in quotation marks, these are a few among several instances when Labatut’s subjects suddenly break the fourth wall, and seem to speak as and for their historical selves. I’m of two minds about these interruptions from the non-fictional world, if that is what they are: they humanize his subjects, and yet they could be seen as a failure of nerve. As if Labatut can’t quite accept the responsibility, which is to say the risk, of treating his subjects as characters.
Grothendieck is one of two mathematicians he writes about at length, and they might be odder than the physicists: “According to Yuichiro Yamashita, one of the few who claims to have grasped the real scope of his Inter-Universal Theory, Mochizuki has created a complete universe, of which, for the moment, he is the sole inhabitant.” It’s been said before, of other outlandish true stories: If these figures hadn’t been real, Borges should have invented them. And if quantum theory hadn’t proved durable, Borges, Dick, Asimov, Serpell, someone could have written, or will write, speculative fiction detailing a world in which the theories were, are, or will be as influential as they actually have been.
The recent history of physics and mathematics covered by Labatut is the period when, never mind amateurs, even specialists have trouble understanding and accepting the implications of their own work. We must give up everything we think we know if we accept the world quantum physics describes, which is the world Rovelli tells us we are living in whether or not we believe it. This is what the (English language) title of Labatut’s book says and means, and Rovelli doesn’t disagree. Perhaps the arrogance of assuming the world can be understood, and the naiveté of believing it exists to flatter our understanding, receives with the quantum revolution a necessary, humbling correction. But the world is worse off since then, not better. Roughly half the emissions we have pumped into the atmosphere have come since the end of the Second World War. Labatut is too fine a writer to show us which side of the coin he has flipped and caught on the back of his hand. The truth is, according to quantum physics the coin shows both heads and tails until he lifts his hand. The facts are that much stranger than fiction: “It is why Richard Feynman wrote that nobody understands quanta. (If instead what I have described seems perfectly clear, then it means that I have not been clear enough about it. For as Neils Bohr once said, you should ‘never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think.’)” (Italics in the Rovelli’s original) Bohr sounds as if he could be paraphrasing Wittgenstein on what must be passed over in silence.
There’s a powerful—and too tidy—explanation of just how much of the real is fictional, or fictive: Labatut’s account of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, from the talk he gave with Niels Bohr, at the Solvay Conference, in late October, 1927:
What [Heisenberg and Bohr] were proposing was a ruthless rupture with tradition. Physics ought not to concern itself with reality, but rather with what we can say about reality, they said. The being of atoms and their elementary particles was not like that of the objects of everyday experience. They live in a world of potentialities, Heisenberg explained; they are not things, but possibilities. The transition from the “possible” to the “real” only occurred during the act of observation or measurement. There was, therefore, no independently existing quantum reality. Measured as a wave, an electron appeared as such; measured as a particle, it adopted this other form.
And then they went further.
None of these limits were theoretical: they were not a failure of the model, an experimental limitation or a technical difficulty. There simply existed no “real world” outside that science was capable of studying. (Italics added for emphasis)
Studied as an individual, a character appears as such. Studied as a type, as a member of a race or class, as the citizen of a nation or an exile, she adopts this other form. The transition from the ‘possible’ to the ‘real’ occurs during the act of writing. It would be a kind of relief if interpretation was analogous to observation. If close reading was improved by electron microscopy. If non-fiction novels, products of research, had more virtue than the imaginary. Yet there must be readers who distrust novelists in direct proportion to how much research they do. Because the imagination is sovereign, and not just the novelist’s. The critic’s and the reader’s as well. The feature that can be pointed to as every novel’s failure is what it leaves out; what we don’t miss from an engrossing novel is not a loss, not missed but immaterial. Like the world, the novel is all that is the case. It has never been easy to quantify our belief or disbelief, the vicissitudes of sensibility, our love and our distaste. How much of ourselves must we surrender to the novel’s own terms? All? Is it possible that we might be expected to surrender less of ourselves when reading a “non-fiction novel”?
A young writer, this is Labatut’s third book and his debut in English translation. It is always difficult to get a sense of a writer’s development, particularly when their work comes into English out of order, as most do. If this were a first book it would herald a remarkable talent, an author to seek every subsequent work by, to see how he develops. A comparable English writer might be Jon McGregor. Just four years older than Labatut, his first book, a prize-winner and full of promise, in retrospect seems overwritten when compared to the formal mastery of Reservoir 13 and the unforgettable, harrowing Even the Dogs. Still, any trajectory, with any number and order of rises and falls, is possible for a writer.
The last section of When We Cease to Understand the World, “The Night Gardener,” also the shortest, made on me the most lasting impression; and if Labatut is as good as his word(s), since the first section had “one fictional paragraph” perhaps this last section is pure fiction, despite sounding believably autobiographical? In this section he leaves the rarified air of the scientists and returns to a more recognizable world. I’ll never forget those wax cubes, laced with cyanide, his neighbors set out “around the borders of their properties” to kill dogs. A human analogue of a dog marking territory; we take such great offense at those who trespass. The nameless narrator of this final section declares, “I despair at how slowly my garden grows.” And I believe this despair, which may be genuine or melodramatic, the excessive worry about the small stuff an outlet for the helplessness he feels about problems he cannot mitigate much less solve. And I believe more in this admission than in Heisenberg’s mania, Schrödinger’s visions of Kali, de Broglie’s fantastical collection of art brut that includes “a perfect replica of the cathedral of Notre Dame—down to the features of its smallest gargoyle—wrought entirely in human faeces.” Why not just call shit shit, unless this touching decision by the translator reflects a need to preserve the dignity of Labatut’s subjects, to keep us from laughing at them? No one whistles any more while walking past the graveyard. We are all working in it.